Joint Statement – Malaysia: Anti-Fake News Bill threatens freedom of expression and may lead to the suppression of critical speech

Bangkok, Thailand – The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) today urged Malaysia’s Parliament not to pass the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018. The two organizations are concerned that the bill will unduly limit freedom of opinion or expression in Malaysia, and could be used to suppress legitimate criticism of the government.

“The bill is flawed in its design and will be open to abuse by the Malaysian government which maintains a poor track record in upholding freedom of expression,” said Sevan Doraisamy, SUARAM’s Executive Director.

Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s Senior International Legal Adviser added, “The term ‘fake news’ is in itself problematic.  It is defined in an overbroad manner in the draft law, and therefore vulnerable to arbitrary interpretation and enforcement.”  Gil further said, “Given past experience in Malaysia, it is highly likely to be used to suppress legitimate criticism of the government on matters of opinion or where the facts are contested.”

The right to freedom of opinion and expression is guaranteed by the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The bill makes no provision for exceptions or defences such as honest mistake, parody, artistic merit, or public interest. The bill would allow up to ten years imprisonment. “The penalties are wildly disproportionate”, said Gil. “Indeed, under international standards, imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty for such offences.”

On 3 March 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, together with his counterparts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), issued a joint declaration on ‘fake news’, disinformation, and propaganda. The joint declaration emphasized that “the human right to impart information and ideas is not limited to ‘correct’ statements, that the right to also protects information and ideas that may shock, offend and disturb.” It also said that “general prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including ‘false news’ or ‘non-objective information’ are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression.”

The ICJ and SUARAM also note that the timing and the lack of transparent consultation on how it was developed raise concerns about the government’s motivation behind the introduction of this bill. The bill has been introduced during the final days of Parliament sitting and is expected to be voted on within this week, leaving little time for deliberation or consultation.

Doraisamy said, “Allowing this bill to be passed would only serve as an affront to democratic values. It will be another strike on Malaysia’s already shoddy human rights record.”

“Adopting a law that would unduly limit the right to freedom of opinion and expression is not the optimal way to counter disinformation and propaganda. The best way is to disseminate accurate information and to make such information accessible to everyone,” said Gil.

The ICJ and SUARAM strongly urge the Malaysian parliament not to pass the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 and uphold the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the country.

Media Contacts:

For Kuala Lumpur:

Mr. Dobby Chew, Documentation and Monitoring Coordinator of SUARAM, tel. no. +603 7954 57 24  or [email protected]

For Bangkok:

Ms. Emerlynne Gil, Senior International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia of ICJ, tel. no. + 662 619 8477 (ext. 206) or [email protected].

Background:

The Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 has been tabled for first reading at the Malaysian Parliament on 26 March 2018 and may be voted on this week or early next week.

The bill defines ‘fake news’, without any defences or exceptions, as including “any news, information, data and reports” which are “wholly or partly false”. Furthermore, the bill states that ‘fake news’ may be “in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.”

If passed, any person may be subject to a penalty of up to ten (10) years imprisonment and/or a fine amounting to MYR 500,000 (approximately USD 127,681) if convicted of knowingly creating, offering, publishing, printing, distributing, circulating, or disseminating any ‘fake news’ or publication of ‘fake news’.

The bill also seeks to penalize both Malaysians and foreigners alike, even if they are outside of Malaysia, as long as the fake news concerns Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen.

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